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Building institutional capacity for public engagement

Emily Therese Cloyd, Director of AAAS Center for Public Engagement with Science and Technology, explores institutional change for Public Engagement as illustrated by work performed by the AAAS Leshner Leadership Fellows.

This post is adapted from Emily’s Cloyd’s poster presentation for the American Geophysical Union’s 2019 Fall Meeting. The full poster can be found here.

Because science is prevalent in all facets of our lives, the science-society relationship is complex, and there are many ways to approach it. Interactions between interested stakeholders are critical to finding common ground on scientific issues affecting society. Public engagement can provide a constructive platform for such dialogue, focusing on intentional, meaningful interactions that provide opportunities for mutual learning between scientists and members of the public. Goals for public engagement include civic engagement skills and empowerment, increased awareness of the cultural relevance of science, and recognition of the importance of multiple perspectives and domains of knowledge to scientific endeavors. The American Association for the Advancement of Science’s Center for Public Engagement with Science and Technology provides scientists and scientific institutions with opportunities and resources to engage with various publics. The Center’s programs increase awareness and understanding of public engagement and its benefits, demonstrate excellence in public engagement, train scientists to engage with public audiences, and build capacity for conducting public engagement with science.


2016 Leshner Leadership Fellows
2017 Leshner Leadership Fellows
2018 Leshner Leadership Fellows

One of the premier programs of the Center is the Alan I. Leshner Leadership Institute for Public Engagement with Science, which empowers scientists and engineers to develop and implement public engagement activities, mentor other scientists in their communities and promote public engagement within their institutions. Each year the AAAS Leshner Leadership Institute brings together up to 15 mid-career researchers working on a topic at the nexus of science and society for a week of intensive training, public engagement practice, and planning. As a part of their planning, each AAAS Leshner Fellow identifies goals related to institutional change: building understanding about, capacity for and support of public engagement within the various institutions with which they are affiliated, including universities, government agencies, professional societies and private industry. Institutional change takes place across all levels of the institution, from individuals to departments and the institution as a whole, and in multi-institution collaborations. During the following year at their home institutions, AAAS Leshner Fellows implement their plans, interact via regular virtual meetings and receive additional support from staff and experts in the field of public engagement as they lead and champion public engagement at their home institutions. AAAS Leshner Fellows also have access to additional capacity-building opportunities, including bringing a AAAS Communicating Science Workshop to their institution or requesting seed funding to support individual and institutional public engagement efforts.

Building Institutional Capacity for Public Engagement

In 2017, AAAS Leshner Fellow Sheena Cruickshank introduced the UK National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement’s EDGE Tool as a framework that AAAS Leshner Fellows might use to assess institutional support for public engagement. The tool identifies nine areas where institutional support for public engagement is critical; AAAS Leshner Fellows identify goals and actions for institutional change in one or more of these areas.

Adapted from the UK National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement’s EDGE Tool



During their fellowship year, AAAS Leshner Fellows report progress on their public engagement and institutional change goals in online journals and in conversations with AAAS staff. Because the EDGE Tool was not introduced until the second cohort and its use in framing goals and activities was not fully integrated into AAAS Leshner Fellows’ planning efforts until the third cohort, all current and past participants were asked to identify their target areas and progress on institutional change in a recent survey. Of the 45 AAAS Leshner Fellows, 18 responded, providing information about 22 institutional change projects involving 26 AAAS Leshner Fellows at 20 institutions (10 academic institutions, 4 departments or units within an academic institution, 4 professional societies, 1 scientific journal, and 1 multi-institution collaboration).

Institutional change activities often address more than one of the focus areas. Overall, AAAS Leshner Fellows indicated their efforts targeted all nine focus areas. Most respondents selected 2-3 primary focus areas and 3-4 additional areas where they were putting some effort into institutional change. Given the small number of institutions within each of the institution type groups, it was not possible to analyze whether there were significant differences between the focus areas at different institution types. However, the most common areas of focus at each were:

  • Academic institutions: Mission, Leadership, Communication, and Public
  • Department or other unit within an academic institution: Mission, Learning, and Students
  • Professional societies: Mission, Leadership, and Communication
  • Scientific journal: Leadership, Learning, and Students
  • Multi-institution collaboration: Mission and Learning


Challenges to Institutional Change

All of the AAAS Leshner Fellows who responded – both those in the current cohort and those in previous cohorts – are actively working on institutional change. Most of the projects they reported on are headed in a positive direction.

AAAS Leshner Fellows reported a number of challenges and obstacles that slowed progress on institutional change. In some cases, they were able to overcome these hurdles, while in others they have had to adjust their expectations and goals.

Challenges to Building Institutional Change

Check out the full poster and learn more about the great work our Leshner Fellows are doing.

Representative Image Caption
Emily Cloyd's Building Institutional Change Capacity AGU 2018 poster